The good thing about going to a mediocre college is that nobody ever calls you a snob because of it. That’s clear from the reactions to Barack Obama’s troubles reaching working-class whites. Here’s a comment from The Weekly Standard: “Obama seems perversely intent on transporting an old adage regarding Harvard over to the Crimson’s law school: ‘You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.’” And the Seattle Times: “Enter Obama. With his Harvard pedigree, mellifluous voice and high-minded talk of moving beyond the politics of confrontation, he is totally out of place in Appalachia.”
Then there’s this: “[Bill Clinton], with his Southern drawl and voracious appetites, performs ‘blackness’ well; but Obama, with his Harvard degree and midwestern, racially ill-defined accent, does not perform it so well.” From the association of “voracious appetites” with “‘blackness,’” you can tell that no American journalist wrote that; in fact, it was Gary Younge, a black liberal writing for Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Do you notice a pattern?
Fred Siegel recently wrote: “Perhaps his remarks about bitter Pennsylvanians’ clinging to their guns have finally made visible the real man and his Harvard hauteur.” And Dean Barnett has written: “Anyone who has ever walked by Harvard Yard has heard the kind of condescending comments that Obama offered in San Francisco.” Obama got his bachelor’s degree from Columbia, but you never hear anyone say, “That guy went to Columbia — no wonder he’s such a snob!”
In fact, I doubt that anyone has ever said that about any alumnus of Columbia, from which I graduated a year before Obama. We have our share of nose-in-the-air types, to be sure, but it’s not because of where they went to college. Columbia simply isn’t the type of place that turns out snobs, though perhaps not for lack of trying. (And by the way, Obama went to Occidental College for two years before Columbia, though no one seems to mention it.)
Every college has its own dominant affectation, and at Columbia it was Gritty Urban Reality. Walk along Broadway any Thursday through Sunday night and you were sure to see a couple of scruffy undergraduates in black woolen overcoats huddled together against the wind. One would borrow the other’s cigarette to light his own, take a deep drag. You might hear a particularly adventurous student say, “Sorry, man, can’t make it by midnight. I gotta pick something up in Washington Heights and then see this guy in Midtown. I’ll catch up with you at Pyramid around 1:30. If I’m late, I’ll call the bartender.”
As it happened, though, the great majority of Columbia students hardly ever ventured below 110th Street or above 120th; and as for the neighborhood to our west, the first story every freshman was told was about the poor fool who forgot to change trains at 96th Street, got off in the middle of Harlem, and was never heard from again. Although Obama lived off-campus, he still conformed to the Columbia lifestyle; as he told the alumni magazine in 2005, “I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk.” Likening Columbia to a monastery was a common joke at the time: Between the high tuition and the all-male policy, it was said, students had to take vows of poverty and chastity. Nonetheless, every Columbia student reveled in his “we bad” New York attitude, and even the nerdiest pre-med secretly envisioned himself passing the bottle of Thunderbird around a trash-can fire with the squatters on the Lower East Side.
Truth be told, there was good reason for our anti-snob attitude: We had very little to be snobbish about. The usual conversation starter with someone you’d just met was, “What college was your first choice?” Columbia’s most cherished gimmick has long been its Core Curriculum, in which its students are made to read great works of philosophy and literature by Socrates, Hobbes, Locke, Aristophanes, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and all those guys. It sounds like a great idea in principle. The reality can be seen by what happened one day in my Contemporary Civilization class: the professor spent half an hour growing increasingly annoyed at our vague and evasive answers to basic questions, until he finally polled the class to find that none of the dozen or so who had bothered to attend had actually done the reading.
Things are much better at Columbia today than they were in the early 1980s. They have girls now and everything; for most students, Columbia was probably their second choice, instead of their third or fourth. There’s even a decent chance that people outside New York will have heard of it. (I still recall going to my high school, about 60 miles east of the city, shortly after I got accepted and proudly unveiling my Columbia T-shirt to a classmate. She said: “You’re going to Columbia? Congratulations! Where is it?” A friend from South Carolina said that whenever he told people back home that he went to Columbia, they assumed he meant the state university; I imagine Columbians in Missouri had the same problem. Within the Ivy League only Penn, which is constantly mistaken for Penn State, has a less distinctive brand name.)
For a contrast, consider National Review managing editor Jason Steorts, a Harvard graduate. He speaks fluent Chinese, discourses learnedly about harmonic structures in Bach fugues, and unwinds after a hard day of work by reading Wittgenstein. He has a right to be snobbish — a right he very rarely exercises, though I must admit that he doesn’t perform “blackness” very well either, probably because he’s white.
So you can understand why journalists seize upon Harvard to explain why Barack Obama is so out of touch with Earl and Gladys and the kids. Even though he spent his time in Cambridge studying torts and contracts instead of Cicero and Swinburne, and even though his professors were more Duncan Kennedy than Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., the very name of Harvard lends Barack Obama a tweed-jacket image that no amount of community organizing, hip-hop gesturing, and cowboy-hat wearing can shake.
– Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.